How Dogs Learn

Mar 4 / Jay Gurden
Learning theory is a subject full of terminology and jargon, with quadrants, primary reinforcers, secondary reinforcers, punishment and many more. It can be a very confusing subject to dive into.

There is though simple explanation of how dogs learn. Dogs learn by making associations. The most famous example of canine association forming is the case of Pavlov’s dogs. To sum it up briefly, the dogs in the study knew that the arrival of people meant they were about to be fed. The sound of a bell, a noise that meant nothing to them at the start of the study, rung right before the bowl of food arrived, became a predictor of feeding time and so they began to salivate anticipating the food as soon as the bell sounded.

This ability of dogs to form an association was later developed further by other scientists to increase or decrease the likelihood of dogs doing certain things and showing certain behaviours. If something they do is followed immediately by something good, something they like, they will trying taking that action again. If the immediate result is something they do not like, that they consider bad, they are unlikely to do that thing again. That is the basic description of how dogs learn.

Guardians and trainers who are not kind and empathetic may take this as a demonstration that the style of training utilising physical or verbal punishment or ‘corrections’ is effective. Technically it is, in that the dog is less likely to repeat undesirable behaviour if they do not like the consequence. While following in the science of how dogs learn, this is neither the kindest nor the most ethical way in which to teach dogs. It can leave dogs reluctant to try new things in case of reprimand or punishment, leaving them with a pessimistic view of the world.

Instead, it is far preferable to focus on the positive side of the spectrum. Positive reinforcement, reward based training takes the best parts of the science around how dogs learn. Knowing that they will receive something they like gives us a dog that is keen to learn, wants to try new things, and enjoys working with the humans around them. It utilises dopamine, a feel-good neurotransmitter in the brain that is associated with memory and learning and the reward centre of the brain. A dog that knows only the rewards of getting things right is far more likely to have a confident and optimistic view of the world.

When it comes to deciding the route to follow based on how dogs learn, there is no question which path the dogs would choose to take!

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